Great American Westerns (Part 2) – ace directors and star actors hunt in pairs: James Stewart

In the first part of this series, I looked at three of the five significant collaborations that actor Randolph Scott had with directors during his 30-year career as a Western star.  

Now in Part 2, let’s look at three partnerships involving beloved actor James Stewart. After breaking through in 1939 with the political satire Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the western Destry Rides Again, Stewart’s career took off in the 40’s with dramas and romantic comedies, including The Shop Around the Corner, The Philadelphia Story and of course, It’s a Wonderful Life all of which showcased a mild-mannered amiable persona. Then, at the peak of his career in the late 50’s, he played tougher on-screen characters in some of Alfred Hitchcock’s biggest thrillers – Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo. It’s not so well-known that the transition to those tougher roles took place during 1950-55, when James Stewart starred in 5 highly regarded Westerns that formed part of a larger 8-film collaboration with director, Anthony Mann. He continued acting in Westerns later on in his career as well, teaming up with iconic filmmaker John Ford and with another prolific director, Andrew V. McLaglan.

Anthony Mann and James Stewart

Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), The Man from Laramie (1955).

For Winchester ’73, James Stewart’s agent Lew Wasserman negotiated an innovative deal with Universal Pictures, foregoing Stewart’s acting fee in exchange for “points”, i.e. a percentage of the box office gross. This was the first instance of an arrangement that has since become standard practice for A-list movie stars and top directors. This lucrative contract also gave Stewart a say in some key decisions, including the choice of Anthony Mann as the director. The movie was a critical and commercial success, which set the stage for a busy 5-year partnership between the two men.

The plot for Winchester ’73 bears a conceptual similarity to that of Colt .45, a Western starring Randolph Scott that was released the same year – the central “character” in both films is the firearm, which is stolen from its owner and then used to commit criminal acts, while the rightful owner sets out to reclaim the weapon and serve justice upon the perpetrators. Of course, Winchester ’73 is a far superior film in terms of casting and acting performances. Two notable actors who featured in this film early in their careers are Rock Hudson, improbably cast as a Native American named Young Bull (he would get a larger part in Bend of the River two years later) and Tony Curtis with a bit part as a cavalry trooper. Playing the female lead is Shelly Winters, who would go on to win 2 acting Oscars some years later as part of an illustrious career playing complex characters, including the mother of the title character in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita.

The most acclaimed entry in the series is The Naked Spur, which was nominated for a Best Screenplay Academy Award. There are just five speaking parts in the film and every one of them is a morally compromised character, driven by greed. James Stewart plays bounty hunter Howard Kemp who is on the trail of a bank robber (Robert Ryan) and his accomplice (Janet Leigh). Two strangers fall in with Kemp as his partners in the hunt, seeking a share in the bounty, much to Kemp’s vexation. Robert Ryan superbly portrays a criminal beyond redemption, a man who is completely self-aware of his “badness” and revels in it. He continually goads his pursuers and uses the prospect of his own reward money and the gender of his partner to drive a wedge between them. The director plays with unusual camera angles to heighten the feeling that the fate of these people is constantly on a knife edge. As was de riguer for films of that time operating under the Motion Picture Production Code (aka the Hays Code), Janet Leigh’s character slowly changes allegiance and becomes Kemp’s romantic interest. Likewise, Kemp eventually allows his inner goodness to govern his actions so that his happy ending can be justified. Nevertheless, the repugnance of every character through most of the narrative means this is a film that can be appreciated more than enjoyed.

B&W publicity pic (from left to right): Millard Mitchell, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh, Ralph Meeker and James Stewart form a rogues gallery in The Naked Spur (1953), directed by Anthony Mann

In fact, most of the characters Stewart plays in these films are of similar nature – hard, angry, complex men (of course, with goodness deep inside) – and very different to his wholesome screen image from the 40’s. I think his success at portraying these characters with Anthony Mann led to roles with Alfred Hitchcock immediately after. Stewart’s strikingly clear blue eyes can be used for dramatic effect; we’ve seen it in the Hitchcock films, but you can also see it in The Naked Spur – close-up shots of his eyes that leave no doubt this is a dangerous man who will shoot to kill.

Winchester ’73 was shot in B&W, but all the rest were filmed in Technicolor. The mental image most of us have of the typical Western setting is of the arid and dusty locales in California, Arizona and Mexico. But these films present a very different terrain, in the heavily forested Midwest (Kansas and Colorado) or the wide plains of the Northwest (Oregon and Wyoming); The Far Country is in fact set in the Canadian territory of Yukon during the famous Klondike Gold Rush in 1896.

Besides, the five Westerns, the star and the director made a movie about oil rig workers (Thunder Bay), a biopic about bandleader Glenn Miller (The Glenn Miller Story) and a film about an Air Force veteran during the Cold War (Strategic Air Command), the latter two receiving Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay. Sadly, a disagreement after the release of The Man from Laramie meant that the two would never work again.

Anthony Mann would leverage the success of these films to land some high-profile assignments – the outstanding Man of the West with Gary Cooper in 1958 (one of the best Westerns ever made), the historical epic El Cid with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren in 1961 and the multi-starrer The Fall of The Roman Empire in 1964 featuring Loren, James Mason, Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif. After Man of the West, I personally felt that he lost his magic touch once he got into the league of big budget films.

John Ford and James Stewart

Two Rode Together (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), How the West Was Won (1962), Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

James Stewart returned to the Western genre several more times in the 60’s, but did not reach the artistic heights of the Anthony Mann films. The most high profile director Stewart worked with was John Ford, but at a time when the great director was arguably past his peak.

Of the 4 films they did together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is noteworthy and in fact is frequently included in the list of great Western classics. Shot in B&W, which was unusual for a Western at that time, it is essentially a deconstruction of the cowboy myth and a meta-reference to co-star John Wayne’s role in building that myth through his roles in Westerns over the previous two decades. Lee Marvin plays the character Liberty Valance and Lee Van Cleef appears as one of the henchman, three years before he hit the big time in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns.

James Stewart (left) and John Wayne (right) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), directed by John Ford

MGM’s How the West Was Won was one of those all-star movies that was so popular in the 60’s and 70’s. It was an expensive production, shot using the curved screen, 3-panel Cinerama process and requiring the efforts of three directors – John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall. It’s a bit of a cheat to include this film in the list of Ford-Stewart collaborations, as John Ford was only a co-director of the film and Stewart was part of a huge ensemble cast that included the likes of Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda and John Wayne.

Similarly, Cheyenne Autumn was also a sprawling epic with a large cast, in which Stewart has a limited, though key role as the legendary Wyatt Earp. The film was released to mixed reviews and is seen as a flawed though commendable effort by director Ford to present the Wild West story from the perspective of Native Americans.

Andrew V. McLaglen and James Stewart

James Stewart continued to appear in Westerns, including three films during 1965-68 with director Andrew V. McLaglen, who had just entered the Western genre in 1963 with the entertaining John Wayne/Maureen O’Hara starrer, McLintock!. McLaglan was a prolific TV director, but also made some reasonably proficient feature films, including four with John Wayne (more about that in Part 3)

I think the Stewart-McLaglen films appealed to family audiences, especially the parents who grew up watching Westerns in the 40’s and were now indulging in nostalgia and looking for wholesome entertainment. But for young adults in the late 60’s, these movies were less appealing as they were being drawn towards edgier, more violent fare of the sort that Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn were making.

Nevertheless Shenandoah (1965), The Rare Breed (1966) and Bandolero! (1968) all are enjoyable and suitable for a relaxed afternoon. Shenandoah is a well regarded Civil War drama which eventually became a successful Broadway musical. The Rare Breed is a comedy-western co-starring the always entertaining Maureen O’Hara in one of her signature feisty roles. And Bandolero! was one of several formulaic action films featuring Raquel Welch that were released in the late 60’s (another one was 100 Rifles in 1969); not particularly memorable.

James Stewart is the patriarch of the Anderson family (John Wayne’s son Patrick is on the extreme left) in Shenandoah, directed by Andrew V. McLaglen

Towards the end of his career, Stewart played a small role in one final Western, The Shootist, which was also John Wayne’s final film. Directed by Don Siegel and released in 1976, it was an emotional send-off for the iconic Wayne and one of the best reviewed films of the latter part of his career. It was truly fitting that James Stewart who blazed his own trail in this genre, played a part in signalling the end of the Wayne era and effectively, the end of the heyday of Westerns.

4 thoughts on “Great American Westerns (Part 2) – ace directors and star actors hunt in pairs: James Stewart

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